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New York, Thursday, October 2, 2003
Practices Downing Hijacked Airliners, General
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Air
Force pilots practice weekly and are
psychologically ready to shoot down civilian
airliners in any new attack on America like Sept.
11, the general in charge of domestic defense said
The chief of the U.S. military's Northern
Command also said better cooperation with the
Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies
had minimized the risk of downing an innocent
civilian passenger jet.
practice it several times a week. Sometimes we
practice three or four times a week -- the
connectivity and having pilots airborne and go
through mock exercises," Air Force Gen. Ralph
Eberhart told reporters in an interview.
He said pilots and ground controllers were
screened to make sure they would not refuse an
order to shoot down a suspicious airliner packed
with civilians such as the hijacked jets that
crashed into the World Trade Center in New York,
the Pentagon outside Washington and a field
in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Unequivocally, to the American people, we
believe that we have the right responsibilities and
authorities established. We have the right rules of
engagement," Eberhart said.
He refused to reveal detailed rules but said a
very careful chain of command of both
identification and final authority had been
established to order a shoot-down despite natural
"Somebody just can't get up on the radio channel
and say 'Hey, I'm the president of the United
States, shoot that down."' Eberhart said. "They
(pilots and ground controllers) have to be
certified in how you use all this authentication
But he said hundreds of pilots in the military's
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD),
responsible for joint protection of the United
States and Canada, were regularly screened to make
sure that they were neither "trigger happy" nor
"trigger hesitant" in an emergency.
"Frankly, we have long discussions with people
to see if they're mentally prepared to do this --
pilots and operators on the ground, too, for the
air defense system," he said.
"As we talk our way through this with our
people, the important thing is they know we have
done everything possible," Eberhart told reporters.
"This is our last resort. And if we don't do this,
innocent people on the ground are going to die,
He said that pilots as well as crews operating
anti-aircraft missiles around Washington area have
been carefully instructed about who can order a
shoot-down and drilled in codes that must be
provided by those giving the orders.
"They are quizzed on the rules of engagement to
make sure they understand what they can and cannot
do, what authority they must hear from, how they
must hear that," Eberhart said.
Eberhart said the Northern Command, which became
fully operational last month, is exchanging
intelligence and aircraft radar information with
both federal and state government agencies on
terrorism threats to the United States.
"We don't want to be just good at cleaning up"
after an attack, he added, stressing that the aim
was to prevent strikes ranging from chemical and
biological weapons to explosives and possible
hijackings. Copyright 2003 The
New York Times Company
dossier on the shooting down of United Airlines
UA 93 over Pennsylvania, Sept 11, 2001